At his first Cannes Lions in 2003, Pancho Cassis was a 22-year-old creative from Chile just setting foot onto the global stage. “It was amazing,” he said. “It changes a lot about how you see the world, how you see advertising.”
At his last Cannes Lions, in 2019, he signed the paperwork to become the worldwide CCO of agency network David—and was promptly handed the brief for his first Super Bowl ad for Budweiser.
Despite its reputation as a place of parties, flowing rosé, yacht outings and occasional Gutter Bar debauchery, the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity has played a central role in the professional lives of many agency and brand marketing professionals. The deals that come out of the festival can be life-changing at the individual level and mark vital turning points for businesses.
But this year, there will be no Cannes Lions. The festival’s organizers today announced that, despite an initial plan to delay to October, the event will instead be canceled outright for 2020.
A source directly involved with the festival told Adweek today the cancellation was “the only decision to make under the circumstances, but a tough one.” The source said the Lions organization might still find a way to celebrate creativity in some form this October, but that will depend on “the industry’s mindset” as the unpredictable COVID-19 pandemic plays out.
The decision to cancel has been met with relatively little criticism, given that many in the industry feel their time—and economically challenged resources—would be better spent shoring up their clients and their own businesses.
The cancellation does, however, highlight what a key annual role the Lions festival has played at both the individual and corporate level as it has evolved from a small gathering in 1954 (in Venice, not Cannes) to a massive global festival that represents the marketing industry’s high water mark for accolades, socializing and deal-brokering.
“Cannes is the biggest party we have in the year, the biggest event, the week where we learn more and do a lot of business,” Cassis said while working in quarantine from his home in Spain. “But I think canceling is the right thing to do. The world has changed dramatically over the past few weeks, and it’s not the time to be celebrating anything. We can do it next year.”
An evolving festival, suddenly paused
Talk to most veteran Cannes Lions attendees, and they’ll typically wax nostalgic about how the festival used to be smaller and more focused on creatives. And they’re certainly right that the fleet of ad tech yachts, rise of tech-branded beaches and emergence of consultancy cabanas changed the vibe of the festival.
But some believe the festival’s growth to include more participants from new industries—and especially from more parts of the world—has made it a more rewarding and well rounded experience.
“In 2006, my first Cannes Lions, it was more about ego, who won what and how many Lions,” said Keka Morelle, chief creative officer of Wunderman Thompson Brazil. “These days, I think Cannes Lions is more about learning, experiences and talking about the future of the industry—how we could be better for the world.”
A member of the Outdoor Lions jury in both 2006 and 2019, Morelle has attended the festival in all the years between, and she described Cannes as a vital event for building connections across borders and having conversations with a range of voices that she and her Brazilian peers wouldn’t have access to at home.
However, Morelle agrees that canceling Cannes was the right move given that marketers need to focus elsewhere.
“Cannes will come back,” she said. “We need these connections, and we need to talk about creativity. But I think the thing we need to do now is pay attention to what we must do to solve problems and get out very quickly from this huge crisis.”
Networking at Cannes can mean breaking out of your bubble
“Cannes has a magic happening through out the week that goes beyond the awards and parties. It’s about the friendships built in this industry throughout the years,” said Ricardo Casal, Miami-based executive creative director and partner at agency Gut.
Cannes has been a key piece in the professional success of Casal and creative partner Juan Javier Peña Plaza, an Ecuadorian duo whose work at David for clients like Burger King (before leaving to join Gut in 2019) tallied an astounding 67 Lions in eight years.
But it’s the networking and friendships fostered in the social hours at Cannes that Casal said he will miss most.
“You meet with people from all around the world, some of them you get to see them once a year and it’s right there, in the Martinez or in the Carlton or the Gutter Bar,” he said. “There’s a lot of magic happening there, and it will definitely be missed. Particularly I’m gonna miss Guillermo, the bar man from the Martinez, he is my friend by now, obviously.”
Connecting with professional peers—along with those from tremendously different backgrounds or roles—is a benefit you’ll hear mentioned by just about every attendee who’s had a good experience at Cannes.
“For me, the absolute value is the learning behind the scenes,” said John Keane, CEO of Ardmore Advertising in Belfast, Ireland. “The celebration of great work doesn’t actually need us to congregate. It is a joy to do so, but there are easier ways to showcase. But the learnings and discovery that come from spending intensely focused time in the company of some of the brightest thinkers in our industry, in an environment where they are willing and active in sharing, is immense.”
Although the networking value of Cannes Lions has long been lauded by creatives, once-skeptical clients have also grown to appreciate how much added perspective the festival can bring to their work.
“In talking to my clients, they find Cannes really useful,” said Lisa Clunie, co-founder and CEO of New York agency Joan. “Over the years, since we started Joan, the size of the client population that attends is growing, not shrinking. I think part of that is because there aren’t enough educational moments for them to stay up-to-date with platforms and publishers, and with agencies and creativity. So I think it’s become actually really valuable for marketers.”
As digital has broken down traditional borders and turned almost all marketers into global marketers, Cannes has given them a place to glean insights from many other parts of the world.
“From a kind of a senior client perspective, you become more aware in some ways of your blind spots,” Clunie said. “And that doesn’t happen when you stay in your bubble.”
What if Cannes isn’t missed?
The cancellation of Cannes Lions will certainly have a tremendous financial impact on parent company Ascential and repercussions for major corporations that sponsor the event as a way of securing or growing clients. However, Ascential has declined to discuss the specifics of its losses, and frequent sponsors Twitter, Facebook and Spotify declined to be interviewed for this article.
Long-term, perhaps the most dangerous outcome of canceling this year’s Cannes Lions would be if it just wasn’t missed.
“There’s always that risk of, ‘Hey, we didn’t go, and we survived. Look how much money we saved!’” said Tom O’Keefe, CEO of Chicago-based independent agency OKRP. “When it kicks off next year, the question will be: Is it going to kick back up at 100%, or is it going to be 80%? There will be some people who take a different look at it. That is a risk, for sure.”
One major mitigating factor for Cannes in that regard is that it’s clearly not alone. In addition to major events like SXSW and Mobile World Congress being canceled earlier in the year, Cannes Lions will also be joined by the Olympics—delaying its start by a year for the first time in the history of the games.
Tracy Bussan, president of MKG, a brand-experience creative agency operating in New York and L.A., said her company will definitely feel a financial impact from the cancellation of Cannes Lions, where her team has partnered on creating activations each year.
But she does not believe the decision will hurt the reputation and appeal of Cannes, especially given how many other events with global audiences have had to make similar hard decisions on scheduling.
The gap will, however, create a time for the industry to reflect and, she hopes, deliver more inspired and thoughtful experiences after a year off.
“All marketers, brands and organizers need to use this time to hit reset,” she said. “What can we be doing better as an industry? What was wasteful? What was meaningful? Are we making a difference? These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves and each other, now and in the future.”
Adweek staff writers Erik Oster, Minda Smiley and Ian Zelaya contributed to this report.